AUGUSTA — Teaching is not Dan Crocker’s first career, or even his second.
Crocker worked for the Maine Arts Commission and then as a health administrator before starting as a teacher at Hall-Dale Middle School in 1999, feeling a need to do something that would make a positive difference in people’s lives. He started in English and language arts but now teaches math.
Jennifer Dorman’s path to the classroom was somewhat shorter. She teaches English and language arts at Skowhegan Area Middle School.
“I knew the first day of school that I wanted to be a teacher,” Dorman said. “I came home from school and told my parents I finally knew what I wanted to be.”
Dorman said she immediately felt at home thanks to the atmosphere that teacher Verna Staples created in that kindergarten classroom.
Crocker and Dorman may have found their calling at different times and in different ways, but they both say that they’re driven by a love of watching their students learn and grow. And they both are among Maine’s first county-level teachers of the year.
Maine’s Teacher of the Year program expanded this year to allow for the recognition of a larger and more diverse group of teachers, including one from each county. In the past, a handful of teachers were announced as semi-finalists in the spring with limited fanfare.
The 16 teachers honored Tuesday in the Hall of Flags — one of whom will be named the state’s teacher of the year in the fall — work at schools as farflung as Central Elementary in South Berwick and Valley Rivers Middle School in Fort Kent. One teaches prekindergarten, one teaches Spanish and one teaches technology. A few teach all subjects at the elementary or middle school level.
“Individually, you represent the best of what Maine’s public education system has to offer,” Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said to the teachers at the ceremony. “And collectively, you show that great Maine teachers are found in every county, at every level and with a variety of backgrounds.”
The ceremony fell on Teacher Appreciation Day, but Education Commission Jim Rier told the teachers they are appreciated, respected and valued every day.
“What makes the 16 teachers who are here today and so many others across the state great, a great teacher, is that you believe in every single student that you teach,” Rier said.
Each teacher received a certificate from Karen MacDonald, a language arts teacher from King Middle School in Portland who was named Maine’s 2014 Teacher of the Year in September.
Peter Geiger, vice chairman of the State Board of Education, said the program received an unprecedented number of nominations this year, due in part to a streamlined nominating process. Whereas there might have been eight, 10 or 20 nominees previously, this year there were 376.
A committee from each county, consisting of educators and business community members, reviewed the nominations to select the 16 honorees. There will be site visits and final interviews before the final award is made in the fall.
The teachers were notified late last week, and they gathered Monday night and Tuesday morning before the ceremony to get to know each other and receive training in public speaking and outreach. Geiger said he hopes the teachers being recognized will serve as ambassadors for the profession and for good teaching practices.
Cascade Brook School fourth grade teacher Sarah Reynolds, the teacher of the year for Franklin County, said the 16 teachers have already become friends and a statewide network. She said she’s eager to share the good things her colleagues are doing in Farmington and to take information back to Cascade Brook, where some of the teachers also taught her when she attended the school in the 1990s.
“Behind me stand about 100 other teachers who helped me become who I am,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds said she became a teacher because she has a love of learning that she wants to instill in her students.
Teaching also gives her the chance to continue learning because it’s always changing. Reynolds said right now she’s focused on transitioning to a proficiency-based model of education.
“I think it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I see the value 100 percent,” she said.
Reynolds’ favorite subject growing up was math, but she earned a master’s degree in literacy education and said she now enjoys creating lessons that integrate different subjects.
Dorman was nominated by Assistant Principal Doug McEwen, who wrote: “Mrs. Dorman has a calling for teaching; she teaches her students to strive for excellence, love reading and to respect one another.
Dorman teaches the same students for two years, in seventh and eighth grade.
“Over the two years that I have them, I see them change not only academically, but socially and emotionally,” she said.
Dorman said she hopes being recognized as a teacher of the year will give her a platform to advocate for the use of research-based practices in the classroom and the importance of peer collaboration among teachers.
Hall-Dale Principal Mark Tinkham, who nominated Crocker, said his classroom is a place of “organized chaos” where students are engaged in their learning, whether they’re receiving instruction from Crocker or working independently.
Crocker said he thinks the recognition reflects the exciting work his students are doing with help from him and the other teachers. He said his favorite part about his job is “that magic moment when the light goes on” in a student’s eyes.
“Middle schools are a unique group of people, and being able to interact with them, it keeps me young,” Crocker said. “I believe I get more out of it than they do.”